News / Europe

Russians Protest Corruption, a Hot Election Year Issue

A member of the opposition holds a banner at a protest near the Kremlin, April 16, 2011. The banner reads, "Thieves should go to jail" and displays images of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
A member of the opposition holds a banner at a protest near the Kremlin, April 16, 2011. The banner reads, "Thieves should go to jail" and displays images of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

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James Brooke

Two anti-corruption rallies were held Saturday afternoon in Moscow.

Russians turned out on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Moscow for two rival protests against corruption, the top issue on voters minds in this election year according to polls.

This tale of two protests speaks volumes about the state of democracy in Russia - 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The state threw its weight fully behind the official anti-corruption protest.

One day in advance Moscow  officials blocked off a one kilometer long avenue for the demonstration. The avenue was conveniently located between a 10-lane highway and transit center with two subway and three commuter rail stations.

Chartered buses brought in participants, who were issued flags, banners and crisp white "anti corruption" aprons. Numbering in the thousands, they then marched in groups into the protest zone. There, eight massive video screens and a powerful music system thumped out techno music and anti corruption messages.

Each unit chanted its place of origin, in this case Moscow.

The protest was organized by Nashi, widely seen as a youth wing of the ruling United Russia party.

To fight corruption, Nashi asked protest participants to videotape teachers, doctors, policemen, and other government employees asking for bribes. Then participants are to post the videos on a new "White Apron" website.

Daniel Semyonov, a lawyer, was directing young people to the protest from a subway station. He said that corruption is now everywhere in Russia.

He said that Nashi’s new anti-corruption campaign had nothing to do with parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections next March.

Four kilometers across town, leaders of Russia’s political opposition held their rally on Bolotnaya Ploshads, literally Swamp Square. They were allotted a small corner of a park, formed from reclaimed river land, a 20-minute walk from the nearest metro station.

In contrast to the official demonstration, the area was surrounded by prison buses and riot police.

Andrei Alatin, the director of an advertising agency, said he had not been to a demonstration in 15 years. But he and his wife came Saturday because they feel that corruption is rotting Russian society.

He said that 20 years ago, children wanted to become businessmen. Now they want to get rich by becoming government officials. He said the only solution for Russia would be a real dictatorship or real democracy - not the "Potemkin village" democracy of today.

No one interviewed at this rally believed that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev are interested in fighting graft in Russia. One man held a sign saying: "Russia rots from the Kremlin" - a play on the saying that a fish rots from the head.

A favorite chant was to call the ruling party, "the party of thieves and swindlers."

In this atmosphere, Boris Nemtsov, a rally leader, said the Kremlin had hastily organized the official anti corruption rally.  He drew a rare laugh when he ridiculed Prime Minister Putin.

He said, "Putin against corruption - is like alcoholics against vodka."

This rally ended peacefully, with policemen barking directions through megaphones to herd the estimated 1,000 attendees to the distant subway station.

At the end of the day, a convoy of 10 Nashi buses could be seen heading south from Moscow, lead by a police cruiser escort.

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